Over the course of four days last week, three major networks each ran separate, deceptively edited videos of Trump administration officials. The spurt of misinformation came courtesy of ABC, CBS, and NBC, collectively misleading millions of viewers.
On Thursday, Jimmy Kimmel told viewers Mike Pence was caught on a hot mic asking to carry empty boxes of PPE for a publicity stunt, and aired a video edited to support the statement. Pence, as it turned out, was clearly joking. Kimmel apologized this week, claiming he hadn’t watched the full clip, but still took a swipe at Pence’s office for bothering to request the retraction in the middle of a pandemic.
But it was Kimmel and his network, of course, who advanced embarrassing misinformation about the VP to their two million viewers. On social media, Kimmel’s clip duped high-profile journalists into spreading his false claim about Pence as well, ensuring it misinformed many others beyond ABC’s late-night comedy audience.
Mike Pence caught on hot mic delivering empty boxes of PPE for a PR stunt. pic.twitter.com/IduvGhiPwj
— Matt McDermott (@mattmfm) May 8, 2020
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd used a shortened clip of Attorney General William Barr to claim he “didn’t make the case that he was upholding the rule of law” in response to a question from CBS about Michael Flynn. Asked how history would view the Justice Department’s decision to drop its case against Flynn, Barr replied, “Well, history is written by the winners, so it largely depends who’s writing the history. But I think a fair history would say that it was a good decision because it upheld the rule of law.”
Todd aired Barr saying, “Well, history is written by the winners, so it largely depends who’s writing the history,” and then claimed he “didn’t make the case that he was upholding the rule of law,” when that was literally the case Barr made in the next sentence. In an apology issued after the DOJ called NBC out, Todd claimed he hadn’t seen Barr’s full answer, which is either a dishonest or lazy given that CBS published a transcript of the interview days before “Meet the Press” aired.
Compare the two transcripts below. Not only did the AG make the case in the VERY answer Chuck says he didn’t, he also did so multiple times throughout the interview. pic.twitter.com/PR1ciceMmE
— Kerri Kupec DOJ (@KerriKupecDOJ) May 10, 2020
Later on Sunday, “60 Minutes” reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had “attempted to resurrect a debunked theory that the virus was man-made in China” during an interview with ABC. The show aired chopped up footage of Pompeo’s answer that misrepresented the full context. Reporting that Pompeo “attempted to resurrect” the theory implies he made some significant effort to advance that argument when, in reality, the statement was made in a brief two-sentence response to a question from Martha Raddatz.
Further, “60 Minutes” cut out most of Pompeo’s subsequent answers to Raddatz, in which the secretary repeatedly said he also agreed with the DNI consensus that the virus was not manmade or genetically modified. Here’s the full exchange:
Pompeo: That’s right, I agree with that. Yes. I’ve seen their analysis. I’ve seen the summary that you saw that was released publicly. I have no reason to doubt that that is accurate at this point.
Raddatz: OK, so just to be clear, you do not think it was manmade or genetically modified?
Pompeo: I’ve seen what the intelligence community has said. I have no reason to believe that they’ve got it wrong.
CBS only aired, “That’s right, I agree with that.” The rest of his replies add important context to the discussion, showing Pompeo’s repeated, direct acceptance of the summary. While his answer was confusing, that doesn’t excuse a misleading report.
Most egregious was a tweet published by “60 Minutes” that simply cut off Pompeo’s acceptance of the DNI assessment. That’s wildly misleading.
As the U.S. took the lead for illness and death from coronavirus, the White House moved the focus to the Chinese government. Last Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted to resurrect a debunked theory that the virus was man-made in China. https://t.co/MZbfe4LeXi pic.twitter.com/bIjTRfboTg
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) May 10, 2020
Nobody in media would claim the industry is 100 percent accurate. Errors are inevitable. Both Kimmel and Todd claim they did not see the full clips their show’s edited deceptively, which is either evidence of extremely irresponsible standards (standards they wouldn’t apply to Democrats) or complete dishonesty. Over at CBS, “60 Minutes” ran with the least charitable interpretation of Pompeo’s statements and used chopped up footage to support it.
This is not a string of errors committed by liberal blogs. They all aired on major networks and their social media properties. They also all targeted Republicans. That is not a coincidence, it’s evidence of the same systemic bias that helped President Trump find an audience five years ago.
The corporate media’s sanctimonious defenders have something right: a credible press is essential. A credible president is important as well. Both institutions have given people some reason to distrust them during this pandemic, when trustworthy, accurate information should be easy to access and identify.
Trump’s political career has always been a reaction to the media’s undeniable bias against conservatives. His attacks have their excesses, but the problem is very real, very serious, and long predates his presidency. Rather than seriously reckon with that problem, the press continually insists on proving Trump right, furthering the credibility issues that helped launch his rise in the first place.
If you care about accuracy, you should care that millions of people were misinformed by major networks last week. If you believe their errors are hardly worth our time in the midst of a pandemic, you may also believe that proliferating conspiracy theories, apathy, and crumbling faith in institutions are all hampering our response to the virus, and damaging the country. Consider that media malpractice plays a major role in driving people there. Consider also that it can be mitigated, but only with some self-reflection and the will to do better.